Did Cannibals really eat Michael Rockefeller?

Last updated on January 27th, 2023 at 08:46 pm

On November 17, 1961, Michael Rockefeller disappeared in New Guinea. He was on an expedition to study the local tribes and their culture. The 23-year-old had been on a journey up the Aruwimi River when his canoe capsized. He was never seen again.

There are many theories about what happened to Rockefeller, but the most popular one is that cannibals ate him. 

This has never been confirmed, and his body has never been found. However, enough evidence supports this theory that it cannot be ruled out.

Michael Rockefeller

Who Was Michael Rockefeller?

Michael Rockefeller was the youngest son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He was born into a life of privilege, but he was also a restless young man who wanted to see the world. 

His father, the governor of New York and the son of billionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr., had connections worldwide. 

Nelson expected his son to help him manage the family’s massive business empire, but Michael had other plans. Although he graduated from Harvard in 1960, he wanted to do more; he wanted to do something with art.

Nelson was a well-known art collector, which may have fueled his intense interest in art and its culture. Recently, Nelson opened the Museum of Primitive Art with exhibits that showcased art from civilizations like the Aztecs, Mayans, and Nigerians. 

While working with an anthropology student named Karl Heider, Michael mentioned his passion project of bringing a massive collection of art to New York. 

With this goal in mind, he spoke to the Dutch Museum of Ethnology and decided to launch a scouting trip to the island of Dutch New Guinea to collect art from the Asmat people.

The First Expedition

In 1960, Michael Rockefeller embarked on his first expedition to Dutch New Guinea. The tour aimed to study the local tribes and their culture, eventually bringing back examples of their art to the museum. 

Rockefeller was particularly interested in the Asmat tribe, known for its ritualistic cannibalism, keeping the heads of their enemies, and other strange rituals.

Upon the conclusion of his first visit, Michael was fascinated by their culture, and he was more than ready to go back there again. He drew up plans for a proper anthropological study and prepared to make a second expedition. Unfortunately, this second expedition would be his last.

What Happened To Michael Rockefeller In New Guinea?

In 1961, when he was 23 years old, he embarked on an expedition to New Guinea with Dutch anthropologist René Wassing. The pair traveled up the Aruwimi River in a canoe, or catamaran, studying the local tribes and collecting artifacts. 

Michael was especially interested in the Asmat tribe and their culture, and the Asmat seemed friendly enough despite having no experience with a white man. To them, he was viewed as a supernatural being because of their beliefs concerning the outside world.

On November 17, 1961, Rockefeller and Wassing’s canoe capsized in bad weather. Witnesses reported that Michael and Rene clung to their overturned boat for many hours before Michael decided to swim to shore and look for help. 

A rescue crew eventually found Wassing after the Rockefellers sent out a search party, but Michael was never seen again.

Theories About Michael’s Death

What happened to him after leaving the overturned catamaran is a mystery. There are many theories about what happened to him, but over time, one idea was corroborated by eyewitnesses in the Asmat tribe. 

Some people believe that he was eaten by cannibals, while others think that he may have drowned or been eaten by a shark. However, recent evidence supports that Michael Rockefeller may have been killed and eaten by the Asmat cannibals.

The Truth About What Happened To Michael

At the time, there were two significant villages in New Guinea, Otsjanep and Omasdesep. The populations of these villages fought and killed each other regularly as part of their cultural feuds. In addition, they also engaged in ritualistic cannibalism. Dutch missionaries and other visitors had been visiting New Guinea for the last decade, but most Asmat had never met a white man.

When the Dutch government began to prepare the Asmat for government control, they sent in a group of soldiers to help with the transition. The Asmat, however, was not happy about this and ignored the gifts and peace offerings sent to them. 

The people of Otsjanep were reluctant to accept the Dutch government like those of Omasdesep, so a standoff ensued. Unfortunately, a massacre occurred due to miscommunication, and several Amsat men were killed. 

Due to these events, the people of Otsjanep were likely looking for revenge when they met Michael Rockefeller.

It is believed that Michael did indeed make it to shore the day his canoe capsized, but upon doing so, he came upon a group of Otsjanep people carrying supplies near the mouth of the Ewta River. 

He was amicable towards these people, but the Otsjanep tribesman had always wanted to hunt the tuan, white man. Their leader Dombai did not want to kill Michael, but two members of the group, Ajim, and Fin, thought differently, and the rest followed their example.

So they captured and stabbed him, but the wound itself wasn’t fatal. They carried him off to a hidden creek, the Jawor River, where they killed him and made a big fire to eat him. 

Upon further investigation, officials discovered that the white man’s description matched Michael Rockefeller’s description. Additional validation was found when witnesses of the events were asked about Michael’s remains. 

Fin kept Michael’s head because it was someone he knew, as was their custom, while other tribe members made spears and knives out of his bones. Approximately 15 men had trinkets made from Michael’s remains. When asked why they killed him, they said it was for the raid on Otsjanep all those years before; they were obligated to avenge their fallen comrades.

Michael’s Demise Was Kept Secret

The situation was delicate, and the Dutch authorities that launched the investigation into Michael’s disappearance thought it best to keep the information under wraps as their geopolitical situation was precarious.

 At the time, Indonesia was amidst a civil war, trying to gain control of New Guinea. The last thing they wanted was to give the Indonesian rebels any ammunition, so they kept the whole thing quiet.

The story of Michael Rockefeller’s death didn’t come to light until later, but the evidence seems to support that he was killed and eaten by the Asmat people. 

While some may find this story gruesome, it’s important to remember that the Asmat people acted according to their cultural beliefs and customs. Unfortunately, authorities kept Michael’s death secret because of the political situation at the time, and his family never had closure.

Despite the many years that have passed, there are still some unanswered questions about Michael Rockefeller’s death. What happened to him in those final moments? Did he suffer? We may never know, but his story is a fascinating glimpse into a different time and culture.

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